Jane Pedroso, left, supervisor of language arts and social studies at Kennett High School, along with Carol Aiken, teacher and current chairperson of the Kennett High School English department.
By Richard L. Gaw
In her book, “Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books,” author Wendy Lesser writes that her love of reading allows her to savor the existence of time; to escape from herself into someone else's words; to exercise her critical capacities; and to flee from the need for rational explanations.
Lesser's description of her passion for books, when measured against the backdrop of reality, is a bitter pill to swallow. Over the past four decades, reading for enjoyment has declined steadily. In a 2007 report, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that only 30 percent of 13-year-olds read nearly every day. Almost half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 do not read books on their own time. Most telling, the report said that the average 15- to 24-year-old spends close to three hours a day watching television and just seven minutes a day reading, and who knows how long surfing social media like Twitter, Facebook and, of course, texting.
Yet look around this summer, as in recent summers in southern Chester County, and you are liable to find a Kennett High School student poring through Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life" at a local coffee shop, or a Unionville High School student reading "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green, or an Avon Grove High School student enjoying his or her vacation while reading "Tuesdays with Morrie" by Mitch Albom.
Summer required reading lists at local high schools have, in recent years, served to not only inform the educational curriculum at these schools, but as a fire starter for young minds to engage in American classics, and both contemporary fiction and non-fiction.
This summer, 9th- to 12th-grade students in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District are being introduced to "One Theme One Unionville." As part of this community reading initiative, students are being asked to read "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green," while middle school students in grades 6-8 are asked to read "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio.
Honors and AP students in the U-CF District entering their 11th year are also being asked to read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," by Mark Twain, "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," by Anne Tyler, as well as the well-known grammar and punctuation primer, "The Elements of Style," by Strunk and White. Those U-CF students entering 12th-Grade AP English Literature and Composition are reading "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad, "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley, "Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton, "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, and "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren.
At the Avon Grove School District, Avon Grove High School students are asked to read between one and three books this summer, broken down according to whether they are in the academic, college prep, honors or advanced placement grid. For example, those students entering ninth grade academic English this fall are required to read "Tuesdays with Morrie," as well as one fiction novel; those about to enter Honors English in the 12th Grade are required to read "How to Read Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines" by Thomas C. Foster; "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver; as well as a collection of short stories -- their choice.
The summer reading grid at Kennett High School calls for students in the honors, advanced, regular and advanced placement categories to read between one and five books this summer.
Carol Aiken, current chairperson and English teacher in the Kennett High School English department for the past 20 years, said that in contrast to the studies that say reading among young people has fallen considerably, reading frequency at the high school has increased.
"I see so many of our students reading for pleasure," Aiken said, pointing to the Harry Potter phenomena as a source of the great outgrowth for reading, particularly in the young adult [YA] genre of literature. I see students reading in other forms, particularly non-fiction.”
"I see them reading e-readers," said Jane Pedroso, supervisor of language arts and social studies at Kennett. "I see a lot of graphic novels, and a lot of interest at the lower levels, and they enjoy choice when we give them choices."
Now in its ninth year, the summer reading program at Kennett remained in the incubator phase in its first few years but has since caught fire.
"In the beginning, a lot of students were curious as to whether this program was going to stick, but over time, they realized that we were really doing this, and the uniformity of the program has helped students know the expectations," Pedroso said. "As we annually improve our summer reading process, the reading list, the evaluations and the in-class work that accompanies it, are all being done with increasing success."
The success of these programs are measured best not by the number of books students read or the diversity of their book choices, but through student accountability for reading them. At each school, students are asked to complete worksheets based on their summer reading, and in some cases, keep a detailed reader-response journal where they record their reactions to the text. Often, they will be asked to participate in a cross-curricular discussion or two when they return to school in the fall, as well as be tested on them.
At Kennett, English teachers will review the existing reading grid each spring, and discuss the degree of reading and choice there should be across each student class and category. When selecting their lists, teachers take input from students, parents and other administrators, the impact of the book on a class's curriculum, as well as the degree of interest and discussion a particular book drew the previous year.
"During the assessment period in the fall, our teachers discuss who's reading, who's not reading, and why?" Pedroso said, as part of the continual effort to reach all readers at Kennett. "We ask, 'Was our method testing too obscure? Could we have previwed our books better Should we have begun the book during the last semester?'"
Although it is perfectly acceptable -- and encouraged -- for a teenager to pour through all volumes of the Harry Potter series or speed read the latest novel about Bridget Jones, the real work of education often arrives when the young person picks up something they wouldn't normally read on their own. For that reason, the titles that form summer required reading lists at schools like Unionville, Kennett and Avon Grove form the cornerstones of the reading programs. "To Kill a Mockingbird." "The Scarlett Letter." "Wuthering Heights." "Anna Karenina."
"Sometimes, we make book choices for students' long-term futures, but if that's all we give them, it may seem unpalatable to many of them," Pedroso said. "And yet, if we give them complete choice and let them read solely what they want to read, they're not going to have the necessary background knowledge."
It's books like these that very often yield the most conversation.
I've taught all levels of English, but the book that has drawn the most response was "Huckleberry Finn," Aiken said. "On the honors level, the students really like "Brave New World," and at the AP level, they enjoy "Frankenstein." So many of us have an image of Frankenstein as the monster, whereas in the book, Frankenstein is the doctor. It does open up a lot of conversation about the title character."
"It's about finding a balance," Pedroso said. "We're trying to get them to find things they like and find intersecting, abut we also want them to be prepared for success wherever they go. The feedback we get from our students when they leave Kennett High School is that they are prepared in reading and writing, in preparation for college or their job."
Keeping a young person in books for the remainder of their lives is one tall order of responsibility, one reserved in large part to the course the student will take in their lives, the influence of their family and, to a small degree, the exposure teachers like those at Avon Grove, Unionville and Kennett will make on them. This summer, the focus of local teachers involved in local facilitating summer reading programs is to keep students reading all year long.
"Our goals can be a little varied for the many students involved in our many courses, but we're trying to expose all students to different genres, certain topics and time periods in history, as well as to the expectations that we have for them, that will help them academically, and for the rest of their lives," Pedroso said.